This Is Why You Plan for Retirement:

by on June 10th, 2014

My grandmother is part of the greatest generation. She was born at the tail end of the roaring 20s, was entering kindergarten as the Great Depression struck, and came of age during World War II. Her husband attended school on the G.I. Bill; her children challenged social norms during the 60s; she and my grandfather watched their personal wealth expand rapidly during the bullish 80s. All the while, my grandparents were scrupulously planning for their retirement.

My grandfather never lived to enjoy it.

Six months after retiring from his job in the automotive manufacturing industry, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and given six months to live; he died seven months later, never having taken even a single trip with the retirement savings he and my grandmother had so meticulously stashed away.

My grandmother was now alone; she was also very wealthy. The combination of the two made her exceedingly frugal, and she’s spent the last 20 years of her live pinching every possible penny. She was convinced that if she didn’t live a thrifty lifestyle, she wouldn’t have enough to see her through her golden years. And even though my parents—and her financial adviser—told her she had the resources to live comfortably for several decades, she forged her own path and spent well below her means.

In some ways, my grandmother’s plans for retirement were dead on. Today, she’s living in a very expensive senior care facility; she doesn’t even remember—she literally can’t comprehend—how much money she has. She hasn’t been in charge of her finances in over five years, after she got swindled by a magazine salesman who convinced her that 100 monthly subscriptions to magazines like ESPN, Hustler, and Ebony would be a good deal. Her monthly care amounts to more than $6,000, most of which she pays out of her vast estate because she has too much personal wealth to qualify for Medicare coverage.

This is why you plan for retirement; this is why you save money, pinch pennies, live frugally—so if serious health problems arise, you can pay for the very best care without a second thought.

But at the same time, I feel badly for my grandmother. As secure as she is (though unknowingly) in her finances, I know this isn’t what she envisioned. She wanted to travel to Europe with my grandfather; they planned on buying a condo in Honolulu, so they could winter on the island my West Coast cousins called home. She wanted to see the world, indulge in all it had to offer. My grandfather’s death changed everything for her—not because she could no longer afford it, but because she lacked the … I don’t know what, courage? audacity? … to travel on her own. In my respects, her life ended the same day my grandfather’s heart stopped beating.

She never got to enjoy the retirement they’d planned. It’s kind of a double-edged sword—her frugality ensured that she has enough to live on comfortably now, even though that “now” is spent inside a nursing home, where she re-introduces herself to her nurse every morning as though they’d never met. When was unable to enjoy spending money back when she was healthy; now that she’s finally putting some of that wealth to good use, her mind isn’t strong enough to appreciate it: on the good days (when she actually remembers who my mother is), she asks my mom and aunts to take her away from that place and let her go home. My grandmother’s serious health concerns make it impossible for her to truly go home.

All this makes me wonder: what am I doing today to ensure that I can not only live comfortably, but enjoy that comfort during my retirement years? Is it possible to have your cake (travel around the world, visit the grandkids, lavish them with gifts) and eat it too (being able to afford quality senior care)?

What do you think?

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